Saturday, February 18, 2012

A plug

On the day of my high school graduation, my grandfather was sick.

From the minute I was born, I loved my grandfather. When I started to talk, I spontaneously called him "Grandpere," an appellation which, I am sure, delighted him to no end. Before I was born, he told my parents that he was too young to be a grandfather - but oh, how he rose to the occasion. He was the librarian of culinary delights, with trips to French bakeries and evenings spent with elbows tucked decorously below fine linen, spoon at the ready for the cracking of the fine sugar crust of creme brûlée. He knew every rule of grammar and every way to be polite - and he knew every waiter and chef and teacher and organist in Baltimore. He could be angry and passionate and hard, but he could also be playful and joyous and child-happy on Christmas morning.

When he died, people told me that I had been the light of his life. Few people know how much he had been the light of mine.

When I graduated from high school, it seemed that my grandfather would always be there, correcting my grammar and feeding me Otterbein's cookies after midnight mass. But suddenly and insidiously, he was sick, and kept getting sicker, and when the phone call came - pancreatic cancer - I felt a dam inside me break. Some things, we can't fix.

Everyone in my life has been an incredible influence, and speaking of my grandfather doesn't take away from the fact that my parents, my Grandmere, my sister, and my fiancé have been equally important to me. But Grandpere made me who I am - rigid, kind, organized, loving, stubborn, accepting, hungry for life, and most of all, finally, accepting death, however unscrupulous and ugly it may be. The words spoken to me by my Grandpere as he was preparing - how to balance a checkbook, what pictures go in the family album, how much he loved us - stay with me every day.

It wasn't just his life which made me, me. It was what he said when faced with the impossible and unimaginable. It was a diagnosis of a handful of days stretched to two years. It was his dedication to us, and his bull-strong, I have to take care of them.

Cancer doesn't make us prettier after death. I know that there were times when my Grandpere was wrong. But cancer shouldn't make us uglier in life. So many of us have been touched by cancer, from friends to distant family to Grandpere - from our personal lives to the millions who suffer with it every day. I try not to think about it, because sometimes remembering the dignity without dignity, the horror of sickness and the struggle for faith, makes me afraid to face the future. We have all seen cancer. We are all victims.

And we all are survivors.

When I'm so, so scared, so sick with the mere idea of illness, I think about how I can get through it, and if there is some magical right thing to do - if we can all work and come up with a cure. I don't know if we can. All of our miracle medical advances seem medieval when compared to the possibility of cells and chemicals and radiation actually working together and producing something final, something to end the fear. But there is a right thing. There is in all of us some small way to help.

I'm getting married in September. All of my family will be there, and all of George's, and all of our friends. But I miss my Grandpere. I miss the pleasure, pure and young and unmarred, that he would feel upon his first bite of cake, his first sip of champagne, the neatness of a crisp dress shirt and a rose boutonnière. He would have been so happy.

So, please, everyone, let's do the right thing.

A friend of mine from Hopkins is doing it. Support him if you can.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Little Alice

Reading over my old journals makes me feel like I'm in an echoing hallway, or hearing ghosts, or attending my own funeral. 

I went digging through some of my old journals, hoping to find my blank sketchbook so that I could start sketching out centerpiece ideas for the wedding. Instead, I found my deep purple sketchbook, marked only with "2003, spring --". That dash tells me a lot, and flipping to the last filled page, I saw an entry from the first day of my second semester, freshman year. 

I sort of blanked out for a while.  I hadn't been prepared for college, and though I tried I couldn't make everything fit, neat and tidy and capable, until I took time off and came back a different person. The unmarked pages in the back of that old journal are proof that, for a time, my life was too scattered, diffuse and stifling and wild, to even commit to my most sacred therapist, the midnight purple notebook. 

The pages before that, however, were filled with so much teenage longing, dramatic sadness, and acid vitriol, that reading them took me back to a place and time where I was only myself in the private and dark corners of ink and the smell of binding. Some of the things I wrote were beautiful, and fragile now because they had aged and been worn away - Italian lace, love letters, photographs of the dead. And the drawings!  I can't seem to put my pencil to paper in such uncontrolled and passionate dreaming, anymore. I drew objects of desire, churches, men with wings, hardwood floors, feet and fingers, all with a sense of urgency and an almost god-touched unawareness. I drew as if I were sleeping and wrought, twisting, with nightmares. 

Remembering who I was, reading greedily and red-faced, felt as if I were speaking to myself through a pane of mercury glass. 

I think that most of us can look back on times when we were young and hopeful and made mistakes.  I probably can't say too much on that subject, seeing as I'm twenty-five and have a lot to learn and many upcoming opportunities to err.   But still, Alice-that-was and Alice-that-is are two vastly different people, though she still wakes up sometimes, yawns, smiles, and curls her little finger. Come back, remember, don't leave me behind. 

I think about things I see every day - wrinkle cream, adds for plastic surgery, women at the gym, health food and miracle diets. So many people are trying to be young again, or to stay young, or maybe just to stave off growing up. There are a lot of things to be missed about youth (perfect proportions and untold energy among them) and I certainly miss some of those feelings, like having a crush that makes your chest burn, or seeing an old movie and coming to a sudden understanding, or having moments when you think you're getting older but you couldn't be more young. Being wrong about nearly everything but feeling so righteous. It's a glorious feeling to not only have everything laid out before you but to live entirely in the moment. And maybe that's what we're all trying to regain. 

But Alice-that-was, as valuable as her experiences have been, is just as shriveled and foul as a rotten peach, sweet, sticky, and dripping with nectar. Not because she was a bad person, but because I'm not that person anymore. Once picked, the fruit from the tree will spoil. 

Can we long for the coveted aspects of being a teenager? Of course.  

Can we ever be a teenager again?  Of course not.

Would we choose to be?

On days when I'm restless and stir crazy and tight with something I can't name, the voice of the past calls to me. She rolls around and presses against my bones. She laughs at me, rattles her cage, waiting for a moment of escape. And on those days, I am tempted by her bright red hair and insouciance. 

The purple notebook sits next to me. I pick it up. I feel grateful for its reminders of who I was and who I happily am. I tear out the drawings and the poetry. The rest ends up in the trash. I turn away. 

And then I dig it out, put the pieces back together, and hide it back in the drawer.  

I may not be little Alice anymore, but she will always be a part of me. 

Friday, February 3, 2012

In the Shadow

A lot of people talk about the present in the context of post terror. That said, I think a lot of us still live in fear more than we'd like to admit, and a lot of us live with the shadowed finger of what has come before and what will never be the same.  

On September 11 of my first year in high school, I found myself shunted over to my old elementary school after all of the public schools shut down and the crying paused, hovering, before footage and dust became permanently imprinted on our minds. I don't remember the walk - just around the corner - to that crumbling brownstone and impenetrable iron grating which kept in my childhood, my faith, and my last innocence.  I do, however, remember the smell of spaghetti and bread rolls and the sound of unknowing and still-in-youth children. I remember the blossom of crabapple trees and the darkly lit stained glass edging the playground. The asphalt, the wood chips, the everlasting feeling of late summer. 

I stopped there. I stopped in the stairwell on my way up to canned marinara and limp noodles and felt only that the world was about to change and that I couldn't help but find fierce joy in being in this state of nonbelieving. 

Today, again in an elementary school, I stood on the playground and saw two planes cross each other, dizzy and delightful in transfer ware blue sky.  And I thought about terror, and I thought about the smell of taco meat and cafeteria bleach, and I wondered if I would ever be free of what has come to define the recent history of the world. 

The planes passed and arched off into the different paths of their personal future.  I kept my eyes on them as long as I could. I watched and wondered when the crash would come. 

I'm not an alarmist, and I'm not, by any means, terrified - but the memory of that feeling, the oh my god, the beating of feet, the baring of running mascara and unbidden prayer, filled me up and made me spill over into irrational what ifs. 

Another trivial event gave me pause.  I've recently become addicted to the band Mumford and Sons, and I've been listening to their Dharohar project album - a mix of Indian music and British folk rock - pretty much nonstop. Oddly, the blend makes me think about the Irish trad I heard in a small pub in Cork.  I've written about those experiences at length; suffice it to say that my time in Ireland was formative and unpleasantly and luxuriously informative. 

These memories are ones that I would give anything to relive, but I found myself drawing parallels to that time in the stairwell on the precipice of finally understanding that we can never go back. 

We can't, and we shouldn't. 

Happiness is not so easily defined, not held in a glass of cider and not captured by the moments before a storm. My fear of passing airplanes and my adoration of youth and music and liveliness - they're all linked. They are things that can't come again. And they both hold in them a goodbye.

Life now, post 9/11, post Ireland, post diagnoses and the Eucharist, past political despair and improbable political hope, may be informed by what has happened but must not be defined by it. I couldn't sacrifice my happiness on this new playground any more than I could sacrifice my peace at home, not abroad and not indolent, with my family.  If I were to be held immobile, a mosquito in honey amber, I would miss out on all of the awe-filled moments of not only the future but of today. 

I still feel that sweat stink of impossibility.  I still hear the news, oh, how still and nerveless. I still feel my feet move in hard heel clicks and shamelessness as the accordion and guitar rouse me to dance. But I am more than that. We are more than that. 

The children I work with, you see - they don't know. Their moments of shock and unbelieving will come, but here, under airplanes and with sweet music, they feel nothing but the present.  And we, we adults, we must secure that. We must take it into our hearts. 

A little boy told me he'd like to be in first grade for the rest of his life. He can't, of course, any more than we can erase the shadow of two towers. 

But maybe we should try harder. Maybe we should see the past and yet, oh so softly, learn to live with the change. 

Maybe we should stop being, and start becoming.  

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Coming Frontier

Or at least, I hope. 

I think it's pretty clear by now that I am a huge fan of science fiction and an all-around, star trek loving, literary nerd. When I was very young, perhaps three or four, I decided that I would be a doctor, modeling myself after the brilliantly red headed Dr. Crusher who could cure all ills and erase all pain with a hypospray and hot eyes.  My parents then told me that being a doctor meant far too many years of education and internships, at which point I decided that I would wait to enter the medical profession until at least the 23rd century. No poverty, no hunger, no chemotherapy, just a universe so wonderful and magical as to make small the fears of 1990. 

I thought about this dialogue and my childhood fantasies recently, when I found myself discussing space flight in the lunch room at work. I'm afraid I revealed quite a bit of myself in the conversation, seeing that I championed the importance of exploration and wonder in modern times. I was, seemingly, the one man band for NASA, space tourism, and fresh faced optimism. I felt a bit foolish, after, but no more wrong.

Space, a vacuum full of cold anticipation and neutral emptiness, still calls to us despite the fact that its reality is limited by what is politically powerful and financially reasonable. It seems incredibly limited to me, however, that we find ourselves unable to journey out into the only unknown because it isn't popular or cheap. I understand, of course, that there are a great many problems on earth which need to be addressed, and that it seems imprudent to consider millions of dollars into the black when we need millions of dollars to fix what we seem so capable of screwing up - our lives, our government, and our rights. But the dreams live in me; somehow I feel that if we could just face the void with good cheer and determination we could figure out what Gene Roddenberry told us. Humanity is far too valuable.  We can't live without passion. And we can't live without that final frontier, without something to bind us, without cause for sharing and listening and taking care of the needs of the people. The end of war, the death of destitution, with the mechanical magic of engines and a pact to guide us happily into the dark. 

I think what I want is still that spirit of exploration, no limits other than the true values of all people - respect, purpose, and peace. 

I may be incredibly naive, but I make no apologies. Gene raised me, in some ways, and the open hope of the 1990s made me willing to accept things that might be impossible. I still think that space travel is possible, but it has come to mean so much more than warp drive and replicators. Space travel means an earth that can get over petty disputes and self-termination. Space travel means that there is a time when we, like Dr. Crusher, can find a way to heal. 

We must mend the parts of ourselves which are broken. We must look out into the night. If we don't, we will have missed out on so much of who we are. I don't care who you are, what political party, what religion, what level of apathy. I think, in all of us, there might be some little voice that cries out - make something new, and value that thing deep and secret which says, I am not merely the culmination of what has come before. 

 I am hope. 

 I am faith, incarnate.  

And I am the explorer, the lover, the wonderer, and the keeper of all joys. 

I will look out and find myself to be stretching, sanctified, human, and above all things, full of terrible and terrifying desire. 

I will hold the stars in my hands.